21st Century Cayman is the title of the National Gallery’s latest exhibition and has brought together find artists with local craftspeople and artisans to explore new ways with old traditions. Business Editor Lindsey Turnbull takes a tour and reports. First in a series of articles.
The image of a Caymanian lady found in a book by Michael Craton called ‘Founded Upon the Seas: A History of the Cayman Islands and Their People’ spoke to artist John Broad. The portrait was of a lady called Susanna Catherine Conolly and he knew it was a face that he had to recreate artistically for himself. His work is thus named: Portrait of Susanna Catherine Conolly of East End born 1838.
“The portrait dates back to the 19th Century and I thought she had such a dignified poise about her which led me to think about how tough her life must have been in those early days and all the changes she must have seen,” he states. “I thought it would be rather fun to reach back into the 19th Century and recreate a unique piece of artwork for this 21st Century exhibition.”
John explains how he approached the project: “I wanted to create a portrait piece loosely based on the style of artist Chuck Close who is famous for employing what is termed a grid system which produces huge portraits,” John explains.
Turning his back on a traditional canvas method for recreating the image, John decided to explore a new and exciting medium for his artwork, namely chalk and crayon on a weaved grid of handmade squares.
“The shapes would automatically serve as the grid base that I was looking for and would also add interesting levels of texture and movement to the piece,” he states.
Thus he enlisted the assistance of Miss Rose Mary of West Bay, an expert in the art of thatch weaving for quite a huge task, which took about two weeks to complete.
“In the end I required 120 yards of weaved thatch that I then glued into five inch squares. They ended up sitting really well next to one another, giving me the perfect authentic base from which to recreate the ancient portrait.”
John used neutral chalks and the old medium of sanguine crayon to create the portrait, using oil pastels around the eyes for definition. The portrait took about four weeks to complete, he confirms. The creative end result is a beautifully sensitive study full of earth tones and warmth for the lady of a bygone era.
“My process was intuitive I did not know of anyone who had produced a portrait on thatch before. My creation started at the top with the hat and progressed down to the base like a spreading plant I wanted to capture the emotive feeling when I first glimpsed the photograph in the Cayman Islands Archive, I was struck by the dignified pose of the subject, looking into the camera all those years ago, from an era that had changed dramatically during her Lifetime. The organic materials of thatch and chalk which must have been familiar to Catherine blended together to resurrect the image reaching back into the nineteenth and bringing her forward to the 21st century
One of the largest and most striking exhibits in the National Gallery show is Chris Mann’s “Thatched Catboat”. Mann built a 14’ wooden replica of a traditional Cayman catboat frame then worked alongside traditional thatchers Tenson Bodden and Hymie, to thatch the framework for this huge sculpture.
“Some of Cayman’s most important traditional buildings such as the George Town post office and the old library in George Town were originally constructed by Captain Rayal Bodden, one of Cayman’s most well-known ship builders. The roofs in these buildings therefore have a decidedly hull-shaped interior which I have always loved,” Chris ventures.
“I thought it would be interesting to turn that concept on its head somewhat and create a twist to a traditional Caymanian theme. This time, instead of looking up to the hull-shape we look down into the boat itself and instead of looking up to see the beautiful pattern of a thatch roof we look down. We discussed the weave and agreed to use the older traditional “Cross thatch” style.
The shell of the catboat is authentic down to its size and shape (it is slightly pointed at the front end, rounded at the back) although the materials used are distinctly 21st Century plywood, screws and other materials.
“I think the boat frame does a marvellous job in showing off the thatch pattern and it makes a real statement. It’s a piece of fine art that highlights the fragility of our traditions in Cayman such as catboat making and thatch work and makes a statement about how important it is for us to hold onto them,” Chris says. “This sculpture is a metaphor for Cayman at this time. I am using traditional forms and vocabulary but combining them in a new and surprising way”.
This piece is the first of what Mann intends to be a series of large sculptural forms using thatch and whilst a new departure it fits in with his use of landscape as the main influence within his art.
Already interest has been in future pieces not least by Jerris Miller for the Catboat Association for the re-launch of their headquarters.